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Newest department on the block.

In 2011, Plymouth University became the ninth UK institution to offer optometry as a degree. OT's Emily McCormick speaks to associate professor and programme lead for optometry, Dr Luisa Simo, about the university's achievements

IT WAS the findings of a workforce survey which was carried out in the south west four years ago that initially set the wheels in motion for the UK's newest optometry department, which officially opened at Plymouth University three years ago.

Identifying a significant shortfall in the availability of optometrists in the region, this shortage, Dr Luisa Simo, programme lead for optometry at the university, explained, was not surprising given that the closest optometry course to Plymouth was 150 miles away in Cardiff.

"Bringing an optometry programme to the south west not only helps with the supply of optometry professionals in the area, but it also enhances the services which can be made available by optometrists in the region," Dr Simo told OT.

Enrolling its first cohort of 36 students in September 2011, Plymouth University became the ninth university in the UK to offer optometry as a degree.

Fast-forward three years, and the programme has gone from strength to strength. It saw its first cohort graduate in September and staff numbers have increased.

In the beginning

In order to make Plymouth University's bid for an optometry course a reality, first on the agenda was to express its desire to the General Optical Council (GOC), which is responsible for approving the programme of study offered by an institution.

Following initial discussions with the regulator in late 2010, it was full speed ahead from that moment on, as Dr Simo explained to OT. "The university first approached the GOC to enquire about opening a new optometry programme at Plymouth in late 2010, and by March of the following year the university was interviewing for lecturers ahead of enrolling its first cohort of optometry students in the September."

"It all happened quite fast," she added, which was no mean feat.

It was through the experience of head of school, Professor Graham Sewell, senior academics in the School of Health Professions, Bernhard Haas and Lyn Westcott, and Professor Steve Taylor, an optometric consultant for the university, that the project got off the ground.

Appointed in June 2011, Dr Simo was one of five lecturers who initially formed the optometry group within Plymouth University's School of Health Professions.

With three and a half years of teaching experience at the Dublin Institute of Technology, the academic returned from a teaching sabbatical at the Universidade Lurio in Mozambique to take up a position at Plymouth.

"My sabbatical was less than three months," she said with a smile, adding that "[Plymouth] was too good of an opportunity to pass on."

Talking about the appointment of the optometry team, Dr Simo said: "Our head of school was wise to appoint Dr Hetal Buckhurst, Kiki Soteri, Fiona Hiscox and Dr Phil Buckhurst. He knew they would bring energy and fresh ideas into the programme."

Fresh faces

Today, the team has expanded to 11 teaching staff and 108 students--36 in each of its three years.

In January 2012, the Centre for Eyecare Excellence (CEE) opened its doors, providing specialist eye services to members of the public.

The centre is a crucial part of optometry teaching, and the clinic provides students with a teaching facility to gain first-hand experience in practice in a variety of primary and advanced optometric practice.

It is the amount of practical experience which students gather during their three years at Plymouth that Dr Simo believes makes the institution's optometry course unique.

The optometry programme designed and delivered at Plymouth is described by Dr Simo as "highly clinical." From the beginning, it was the university's aim to deliver a programme which prepared students for their professional career and leadership. Therefore, the emphasis on advanced clinical practice was always at the forefront, Dr Simo explained.

Optometry undergraduates at Plymouth complete three clinical placements during the three-year course. The first one-week placement takes place at the beginning of the first year and the others are built into the second and third years of the programme.

"The early clinical exposure is something that we are proud of and helps our students to stand out against their peers," she explained.

Dr Simo revealed that securing placements requires a large amount of effort and a strong relationship with the local profession. In the first year the students "get to immerse themselves in a week of clinical community optometric practice, which allows them to reflect on what skills they need to be successful in their profession," she said.

"The second year placements aim to help students contextualise the different skills into the theory that they are learning," she added.

Commenting on the benefits of the clinical placements, Dr Simo said: "We see the students come back into class with much greater communication skills and professionalism, and a deeper insight into the optometric profession and its role in health care provision."

Three years on

Witnessing the graduation of its first group of optometry students, Dr Simo described it as "the icing on the cake" after three years of hard work. "The team was proud to see the first cohort achieve their dream of completing the optometry programme; this is the reason we have all worked so hard," she said.

"Our efforts have been greatly appreciated by our students, who demonstrated this through their good results and a lot of positive feedback."

With a big milestone now met, what's next? OT asked. "We are looking forward to seeing the programme grow and expand," said Dr Simo. "Not only in line with new technology and how primary and secondary eye care develop, but through offering a strong and innovative post-graduate programme."

While Plymouth's course remains the youngest optometry programme, it may not be the 'new course on the block' for much longer, with the optometry ambitions of the University of Hertfordshire widely known in the profession. Speaking about a potential new course, Dr Simo told OT: "The number of optometry programmes is not the issue. What is important is the quality of education and how well a course prepares its graduates for their professional and academic careers.

"We must not forget that optometry is a health profession, and therefore patient care must be at the forefront of what we are doing."

Concluding, she added: "Well motivated and prepared students is what we should all strive for.

"With regards to numbers, I think that healthy competition amongst institutions can have a very positive impact on the development of optometry in the UK and in Europe."
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Title Annotation:INTERVIEW; Luisa Simo
Author:McCormick, Emily
Publication:Optometry Today
Article Type:Interview
Date:Nov 14, 2014
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